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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

The road to workplace gender equality is long

Rana Askoul data mines recent trends surveys on women in the regional workplace

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 08:  Clarissa Horsfall holds a sign reading, 'Equal Pay,' as she joins with others during 'A Day Without A Woman' demonstration on March 8, 2017 in Miami, United States. The demonstrators were calling for woman to have equity, justice and human rights for women and all gender-oppressed people.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 08: Clarissa Horsfall holds a sign reading, 'Equal Pay,' as she joins with others during 'A Day Without A Woman' demonstration on March 8, 2017 in Miami, United States. The demonstrators were calling for woman to have equity, justice and human rights for women and all gender-oppressed people. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In 2010, my husband and I travelled to Aleppo for a short break. Upon arrival, we realised that few taxi drivers and shop owners spoke even a smattering of English. Given that my husband does not speak Arabic, I naturally led most of the conversations during our stay. Our first encounter was with a taxi driver we had flagged down to take us to our hotel.

As I asked the taxi driver a question, I noticed a bewildered look on his face as he stared at my husband. He then proceeded to reply to my question addressing my husband. I followed up with another question directed at him after explaining that my husband does not speak Arabic. He responded and again addressed my husband. Over the next few days, we encountered a few other similar situations, where my perceived dominance in the presence of my husband would be met with unease and discomfort. I realised then that “the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend”, and that a change to deeply entrenched perceptions of the place that men and women are made to occupy in our societies, needs to take place in order for the eyes to gain clear sight.

I was reminded of my story in Syria a few weeks ago as I read the highlights of a recent Bayt survey on women's perceptions of workplace equality in the region. The survey highlighted that 88.5 per cent of women surveyed across Mena countries believe that labour laws in their territories are fair. Additionally, women are reporting they have reached the same level of workplace equality as their female colleagues in western countries. It should also be said that the UAE leads the rest of the region for workplace equality.

In spite of this, I couldn’t help but be surprised by the survey's findings when I think about the region as a whole.

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According to a 2017 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on women in public life, three out of four women in the region remain unemployed. This is among the highest rates of female unemployment in the world. The public and economic empowerment of women in the Mena region still faces a long list of challenges. According to the same report, barriers to workforce participation for women include a number of discriminatory legal provisions to laws that limit the type and hours of work for women, a differentiation in treatment and receipt of non-wage benefits such as retirement benefits, wage discrepancies and limited resources to support care for families, for which women still incur most of the burden.

Of course, it should be said that these situations vary across the region, depending on the territory but, even in cases where constitutional provisions and laws confirming gender equality between men and women exist, implementing mechanisms and contradicting personal and family laws put women at a grave disadvantage. Huge barriers remain in the face of female empowerment.

On one hand, I fear complacency with the status quo when in actuality, the road is still a long one. But more importantly, there is a sense of urgency to raise awareness and understanding of the reality for women on the ground. There is a sense of urgency to point to facts such as the one reported by OECD, where Mena women are still classified as those facing the most difficulty compared to the majority of the regions worldwide in choosing where to live, applying for a passport, getting a job and travelling outside their home countries.

By all means, let’s celebrate our wins, but let's also remember there is still work that needs to be done.

Rana Askoul is a Middle East-based writer, gender equality expert and a social change advocate